Homily: If it causes sin…

127-hours-tlr255b1255dIn 2003, in the beautiful mountains of Utah, a twenty-seven-year-old mountain climber named Aron Ralston made a desperate decision. Aron was rock-climbing when his right arm became trapped under an 800-pound boulder. He knew that he was in deep trouble. Unable to move the rock, Aron used his pocketknife and chipped away at the rock for 10 hours, with no success. His family and friends were used to his going off for days, so they weren’t looking for him. After days with no food or water, Aron decided to amputate his arm. And that’s what he did, using only a pocket knife. After he was freed, he applied a tourniquet to his arm and rappelled nearly 70 feet to the floor of the canyon. Then he hiked five miles where he encountered some other hikers and was rescued. Aron Ralston made the excruciating decision to cut off his arm to save his life. It reminds us, perhaps, of Jesus’ words from our Gospel reading for today, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell.” Aron Ralston made a choice to leave a valuable part of himself behind, in order that he might survive.

Our gospel reading today has four related parts. The story we just heard relates to the fourth part. But our first reading gives us the lens for understanding the first part.

In our first reading, Moses complained to God that he was worn out from carrying the responsibility of leading God’s people through the Exodus, and arbitrating their disputes, and keeping up their spirits. Then we have our reading. The two men who began to prophesy apart from Moses were a scandal to Aaron. Moses responded that it was good that these two men also prophesied, and that this is not an occasion to be alarmed, but to rejoice—not just that these two received the gifts of the Spirit, but to hope and ask for all God’s people to receive and manifest the gifts of the Spirit.

In the Gospel, it’s similar, but a bit different. Someone not associated with Christ or his chosen disciples is casting out demons by the name of Jesus. The disciples are concerned—scandalized. If this stranger is proclaiming Jesus’ name in casting out demons, what else might he be claiming in His name? How do they know this man isn’t undermining Jesus’ truth and authority by false teaching? What right does he think he has to use Jesus’ name?

But like Moses, Jesus calms their fear, and tells them not to see this man as a threat. It’s not just the name of Jesus that casts out demons, but the faith of the one proclaiming the name. And if this man is able to cast out demons by his faith in Jesus’ name, then this man is not an enemy. He is one who has faith in Jesus, but has not yet received the fullness of His truth. But that will be fixed. Because Jesus knows that His death and resurrection are coming, and after that, the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Jesus says, “When I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself” (Jn 12:32). The faith that allows this stranger to be casting out demons in Jesus’ name will draw the man by that same faith to the ministry of His Apostles, given their own charism to discern and direct the gifts of the Spirit in service to the Body of Christ, for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. In connecting this story with our first reading, the lectionary is emphasizing this as a foreshadowing of the outpouring of the gifts of the Holy Spirit… and… the importance of knowing that the Spirit will not act as we expect. It requires the discernment by the Church to distinguish between the work of the Holy Spirit, which propels the church and the world forward in God’s plan, and the work of some other spirit, which brings chaos and confusion. Jesus, as the New Moses, wants all the people of God to manifest the gifts of the Holy Spirit; not just Church leaders, but all the faithful who profess and believe in the Holy Name of Jesus.

Imagine the Church—all Christians—so on-fire with the Holy Spirit that even just a passing encounter with the Church—a small kindness like a drink of water—would be enough to plant the seed of conversion in someone. We are afraid to let that power of the Holy Spirit run loose in our lives. But as Pope Saint John Paul often repeated the most repeated phrase throughout the scriptures: “Do not be afraid!”

The third part of our Gospel reading is quite relevant to our modern situation. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Little ones doesn’t just mean children, but spiritual children—innocent disciples, new Christians, the simple faithful who can be easily scandalized, panicked, and can be scattered like startled sheep. The Church provides what is necessary for salvation. And so those, who by the scandal they create, cause the faithful to wander from the Church and jeopardize their salvation, Jesus uses a very strong and memorable image for us to keep in mind. If having a giant millstone tied around your neck and being cast into the sea doesn’t sound like fun, that’s the better alternative to what awaits those who cause scandal to the little ones of the Church.

The fourth part of the gospel: “And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” We don’t like to hear about hell. But no one in the Scriptures mentions hell more often than the Word of God himself, Jesus. So it’s important, of eternal consequence. So we should talk about it.

“Many centuries ago, the Canaanites used to perform their liturgies of human sacrifice, their infanticidal devotions, to the devil (in the personage of Moloch) in the valley of Gehenna, or Gehinnom, just outside Jerusalem. It was a vast abortuary. When the people of God entered the Promised Land, God commanded them to kill the supernatural cancer of the Canaanites. Even after that was done, the Jews dared not to live in that valley, and barely even set foot there. They used it to burn their garbage. So the devil’s promised land became God’s garbage dump. And the fires never went out, day or night. Jesus chose this place, Gehenna, as his image for hell. And he told many of the leaders of his Chosen People that they were headed there, and that they were leading many others there with them.” (Peter Kreeft)

I am the target text.

First, I think it would be helpful to talk about the dominant religion in Western society. It’s called, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” This term comes from a 2005 report called “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” No one would identify themselves as adherents to this, but it is functionally the belief system of a large swath of our culture. The five central beliefs are: (1) a god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth; (2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught by most world religions; (3) the goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself; (4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when needed to resolve a problem; and (5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

It’s called moralistic because it places high value on “being good.” But “good” is defined by the opinion of secular culture and by not the revealed truth of Christian Faith. So tolerating things the Church calls sin can be seen as “good,” if it makes people feel good about themselves; while calling those things “sinful” is seen as bigoted or intolerant, which is bad.

It’s called deism because God is little more than cosmic roadside-assistance—you can call Him when you’re stuck, but it would be awkward to get too familiar with him. (Technically, it’s “theism” and not “deism,” as deism is a rationalistic belief in a “watchmaker” god who set everything in motion and does not interfere.)

And it’s called therapeutic because the most important thing is to be a basically good, nice person, and you go to heaven. Everyone goes to heaven, all your uncles and mothers and friends; everyone who isn’t literally Hitler.

So (1) there’s no point in talking about hell, (2) all religions are basically the same, (3) 40 years of promoting self-esteem means everyone sees themselves as basically destined for heaven, and (4) the teenagers at the time of this 2005 report are now in their late twenties and thirties, with children of their own, who don’t see the urgency in baptizing their children, or going to confession, or just going to church; and if they go to church, see themselves as good enough people to take communion, regardless of church teaching, which, if it makes you feel bad, is bad. That’s the dominant religious perspective of Western society, even among many of those who go to Church on Sunday.

Combine that with the relativism, hedonism, and narcissism of modern culture, and you have what older people are complaining about when they compare today with the world they grew up in. It’s not that there wasn’t sin. But it was acknowledged as sin, treated as sin, and feared as the real possibility of losing one’s soul to eternal damnation.

It’s not that God created hell to punish people. People have the free will to reject humility and forgiveness, even to the very end—to refuse to acknowledge their sin as sin. We can create habits of willfully choosing other things over God. And we can lead others—little ones—to do the same.

Nobody talked about hell more than Jesus Christ. Because he knows what hell is, and he wants us to avoid the eternal spiritual and physical pains of hell—the chief of which is eternal separation from God, who is love, light, truth, goodness, and beauty.

Of course, lopping off your foot or your hand or your eye won’t help, if it’s your heart—your soul—that is diseased and disordered. It’s not your eye, but how you look at others, and what you look at. It’s not your hand, but what you do (or fail to do) with it. If Jesus, through the Scriptures, and the Sacred Tradition of the Church, says sin matters, then I for one choose to live like it matters.

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Homily: Spiritual Greatness

jesus-suffers-the-little-children-to-come-unto-himIn last week’s gospel, Jesus gave his disciples the first real insight into his mission as a messiah—not to overthrow the Romans by his victorious army of angels, but to overthrow Satan by his victorious crucifixion and resurrection. Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his crucifixion and resurrection, and Jesus in turn rebuked Peter for thinking not as God does, but as the Flesh does.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives his second prediction of the cross. It says “He was teaching his disciples and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.’ But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.” So after two out of the three predictions of His death and resurrection, and they still don’t understand. As St. Bede says, you can kind of feel for them, because Jesus often speaks in ways difficult to understand, and he speaks in parables and figures, so maybe this is a metaphor. But they’re afraid to ask.

I’ll point out here that when Jesus predicts his death, he always follows it with the prediction of his resurrection. Many people like to focus only on the resurrection—the empty cross—but in the mind of the Church, the two are inseparable. The cross by itself does not necessarily communicate the crucifixion, but the crucifixion absolutely leads to the resurrection. So we venerate the crucifix; first, as a sign that Jesus shares in our suffering, in our calling out when we feel abandoned in our darkness; and second, as the hope and promise that our suffering leads us, with Him, to the resurrection, and the grace of redemption, joy, and new life.

It seems in our Gospel reading that the disciples didn’t understand Jesus’ teaching about the death and resurrection, and so they just changed the subject and started talking about something else. And maybe in their minds, that was true. But Jesus uses it to further explain what kind of Messiah he is, and what he’s ultimately trying to teach them. Jesus said to them: “‘if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.’ Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, ‘whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.’”

[The Greek word being used there for “child” (paidion) literally means “little child.” However, there is reason to suggest that the person Jesus drew their attention to was a new disciple, a “little child” in the faith; one whose faith was still young and innocent and impressionable; one who was very aware of their humble dependence on the more experienced disciples to guide them, to invite and include them; one who could be easily confused and scandalized; one who recognized their need to be helped a great deal in continuing to develop their faith to bear fruit in the challenging situations of life.

Whether Mark was referring to a little child in the flesh or a little child in the Spirit,] the point Jesus is making is that greatness in spiritual terms is different than greatness in worldly terms. If you want to be great, seek out the needy, the vulnerable, the wounded, and the lowly, show them God’s abundant love for them, and you will be great.

Of course, there’s the old proverb, “You cannot give what you do not have” (“Nemo dat quod non habet.“) You cannot show them God’s abundant love, if you don’t know what that feels like; if you haven’t experienced it yourself. And that you can only experience by seeking his love first and above all things; to put your time of scripture and contemplative prayer at the top of your list, each day, and make sure you do it, each day. And, if possible, participate in the Mass, each day. And then, with your heart filled with gratitude for God’s love for you, fill every moment and every encounter with others in your life with bringing that love to others—especially those who most need help in the way of encouragement, hope, and meaning in their present difficulties.

Reading Sacred Scripture is not about covering a lot of territory–a mile long and a half-inch deep. It’s about plummeting the infinite depths of the mystery of the Inspired Word, which speaks to every soul in every generation, for those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to understand (Mt 13:15).

At this point in writing my homily, I still had about three pages left of white space. And I decided, instead of talking about the other readings as usual, we’re going to walk through an ancient approach to contemplative prayer with scripture, called lectio divina (divine reading), using the first half of the second reading, which is a good length of text for this kind of approach. Hundreds of years of Benedictines and Carmelites and many others have used and refined this approach to contemplative prayer with the Sacred Scriptures.

Lectio divina has four main steps.


The first step is lectio (reading), and so we read through the text, ask, “What does the text says in itself? What is its literal meaning as a text?” So we read our text: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” So you would take a few minutes, five or ten (or fifteen if you’ve got a lot of patience), and ask, what is being said on the literal level?

For example, we might look at a commentary to give us the context of the letter, and some textual notes that help us understand any particular phrases or references. James (who is probably not one of the disciples named James, but another James) is giving correction to the Christian community (perhaps a particular city community, or to all the communities generally, who might be) torn by sins of jealousy and prideful ambition, which lead to disorder, distress, and tension in the community. But James reminds them that divine wisdom grants firstly purity of heart, then secondarily peace, gentleness, and mercy; and yields good fruit in those who consistently promote peace. So seeking and following divine wisdom in humility, respect, and order, is what will heal the division and tension that the community is suffering. That’s an example of the first step.


The second step is meditatio (meditation), and we ask, “What does the biblical text say to me? What jumps out at me from my experience, my perspective, my personality, my life, right now?” and we read through the text again: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

Looking over the text, I might say, among other things, that I want to be peaceable, gentle, full of mercy and good fruits, so for that I need to receive wisdom from above, which is first of all pure, and constant, and sincere. So I need to practice these virtues if I want to bear those fruit in my soul.

You might read this and see the word, “compliant,” and that might stir up some resistance in you. I’ll give you a great piece of wisdom: if you encounter something in the scriptures that really rubs you the wrong way, or really goes against what you think or feel, that is a great part of the text to zero in on. I’ve found that something in the divine word that is most not like me is often where I can score a lot of growth—in understanding the scriptures, in growing in virtue, or growing in humility, and for having a piece of scripture rattling around in my head for a good bit of time while I wrestle with it. So, for example, if seeing that word “compliant” stirred up something in you like, “nah, that’s not me,” then here’s your sign.


The third step of lectio divina is oratio (prayer), and we read through the text again, with the question, “What do I say to the Lord, in response to His Word?” “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.”

Maybe I say, Lord, you have revealed that it is the gift of your wisdom from above that grants these qualities—and so the gift is first from you, and so I ask you to grant me the gift of your wisdom, and then help me to respond to it fruitfully, and be a good steward of it. You know I get angry quickly, and I’m reminded that I need your help to be gentle, which is more of the kind of person I want to be.


And the fourth and last step in the traditional lectio divina is contemplatio (contemplation). Now we ask, “What conversion of mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of me?” And we read the text again, building on all that we’ve picked up through the previous steps, and listening for our call to deeper conversion: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. But the wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.” We sit with the text, and chew on it, listening and discerning, zeroing in on God’s personal and particular guidance to us in this present moment in our lives.

And this is contemplative prayer—we’re not rambling with our words, but listening with discipline and desire in our hearts for God speaking to us through his Word, inviting us more deeply into relationship with Him, helping us to be more like Him, inviting us into a greater share in His life.

When we reach this step, we can simply sit, wordlessly basking in God’s love for us, and our communion with Him, growing in love for Him, and our experience of His love for us. It won’t necessarily happen every time, especially at the beginning. But that’s an unmerited gift—contemplative prayer—and the goal of the spiritual life.

I might be receiving the word, “gentle” in a special way. That God, who is the gentle, Good Shepherd, is calling me to chew on that word, “gentle,” as God reveals to me his desire for me to share in his virtue of being gentle, patient, and peaceful; slow to anger. What would that look like in my life? What change(s) do I need to make? How do I avoid failing to be gentle, reacting with my habitual, hair-trigger temper? What upcoming conversations might I go into preparing and reminding myself to work on being gentle? I ask God to help me to remember to ask for His intervention, especially when I most need it.

[I purposely used the phrase of “chewing on the Word,” to make reference to the “Bread of Life Discourse of the Gospel of John, chapter 6. One of the things that Catholics will often point out (but which I don’t believe is a strong argument), is that Jesus says, “whoever eats (phago) this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (John 6:51). Here, Jesus uses the common Greek word for “eat.” It’s also the word used in the Greek for Ezekiel 3:1 and Revelation 10:9 for “eating the scroll” and then prophesying. But phago can be taken loosely, like we use the word, “eat” (e.g., “eat your heart out”). Then Jesus goes deeper: “Whoever eats (trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:54). Jesus changes the word for eat from the common phago to the very explicit trogon—to gnaw, crunch or chew. The argument is made that this proves Jesus means to eat his flesh, and thus his real presence in the Eucharist.

I don’t think this argument is as effective as many Catholics think it is (and clearly most Protestants don’t either). Now don’t get me wrong—I absolutely believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist! But lectio divina is a great example of taking the time and “chewing, gnawing” on the Word of God, and diving deeply into God’s truth for our salvation and abundant life. Jesus is both the Word on the altar and the Word on paper. We eat Him with both our minds and our bodies, by the Truth of Heaven in our ears and the by the Bread of Heaven in our mouths (the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist).] 


Some approaches to lectio divina add a fifth step, actio, action, in which we ask, “How can I put this into practice in my life, in love of God and my neighbor?” And we would read through the text again, and pray about it the rest of the day, asking for God’s guidance in incarnating in our flesh the spiritual growth he has granted to us.

  1. Read – What does the text say in itself?
  2. Meditate – What does the text say to me?
  3. Pray – What do I say to the Lord in response to His Word?
  4. Contemplate – What conversion of mind, heart, and life is the Lord asking of me?
  5. Act – How can I put this into practice in my life, in love of God and my neighbor?

So this (lectio divina) is probably the most common way for beginning the practice of contemplative prayer, for growing in gratitude and joy for his blessings and his call to you as his beloved child. Grow in the discipline of doing this every day, and there is no measure to how it will change your life, because there is no measure to God’s love for you, and for the path of holiness.

You cannot show them God’s abundant love, if you don’t know what that feels like; if you haven’t experienced it yourself. And that you can only experience by seeking his love first and above all things; to put your time of scripture and contemplative prayer at the top of your list, each day, and make sure you do it, each day. Acquire this habit of contemplative prayer (particularly if it is united with the habit of daily communion), and you will be brimming over with God’s love to share joyfully with others. Do this, and you will be great.

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Homily: Pick up Your Cross


We continue through this year’s [Year B of the Lectionary] journey through the Gospel of Mark, with occasional side-trips into the gospel of John. Today in the gospel of Mark we have some difficult themes—difficult for those first disciples, and difficult for us current disciples.

In the first part of the gospel reading we have the dialogue we all know pretty well: Jesus asks his disciples who the people say that he is. They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” So there is this common impression that Jesus is more than just an ordinary person; that he is perhaps the incarnation of some great person of Israel’s history. And that’s not completely wrong. He is the incarnation of some great person of Israel’s history—he’s the incarnation of the God of Israel!

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So Jesus asks the disciples to put it on the line. And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” The people know that Jesus is something special, but they’re not sure what. So he turns to those who he has hand-picked and trained and taught and spent time with, and he wants them to put their faith into words: “Who do you say that I am?” Matthew Kelly calls this, “The Jesus Question,” one of the most important questions we might grapple with, and we all have to answer it: Who do you say that Jesus is? Peter says in response: “You are the Christ.” We’re more familiar with the version in Matthew, in which Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And in Matthew, Jesus affirms Peter’s faith, and says that Peter is the Rock, and on this rock he will build his church. But here in Mark, the call to faith (the call to answer “The Jesus Question,” and respond to it) is more brief and urgent.

In the second part of the gospel reading, Jesus makes his first prediction of the cross. In the Gospel of Matthew, also, Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah is immediately followed by Jesus explaining what that means. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to be the messiah-king who leads the angelic army to vanquish the Romans and liberate Israel. Jesus is here to defeat a much more powerful enemy than the Romans. Jesus is here to defeat Satan, the enemy of human nature and the ultimate plan for humanity, which is communion into the life of God. Satan’s evil plan in Eden had the effect of introducing suffering and death (mortality) into humanity. And in a plan of divine brilliance, God is going to pull off the perfect reversal: becoming human, enduring suffering and death, and defeating Satan using the effects of his own evil plan against him. Satan thinks that the cross and the death of Jesus is his ultimate victory, when it’s truly his perfect and ultimate defeat!

Peter thinks this is not a good plan, and so he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. I don’t know if I’d call that courage, but it’s something. And, “at this [Jesus] turned around and, looking at his disciples,” Jesus rebukes him back: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Peter is acting out of our human nature–to see suffering as something always to be avoided whenever possible. Remember, Satan is the great Tempter. The temptations Jesus endured from Satan in the wilderness were about accomplishing his mission while avoiding the cross, avoiding God’s plan for humanity’s salvation. And now Peter tempts Jesus away from the way of the cross. Peter echoes Satan’s temptation. But Jesus is not following his own plan. He’s following the Father’s plan, and Jesus is perfectly obedient to the Father. The cross is the way, the only way, for Jesus to accomplish the fullness of his mission, his purpose. He must—and will—endure the cross.

And that transitions us into the third part of the gospel reading. Jesus had been talking to the Twelve, and then, “He summoned the crowd with his disciples and said to them,Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” We ALL must endure—not just endure, but embrace—the cross. If we try to avoid the suffering of the cross, the suffering will come to us anyway, but without any salvific value: sterile, fruitless suffering. But… if we embrace the suffering with the cross, then we unite our suffering to the suffering of Christ on the cross, and then it becomes the instrument of uniting us to the source of life and grace. A faith tradition cannot survive long (certainly not thousands of years) without offering a meaningful way to grapple with suffering. If there’s no meaning to suffering, it makes perfect sense to avoid it at all costs–like Peter tried to get Jesus to do. But Jesus understands that his suffering is going to be universally meaningful–and that through it, he is going to make all human suffering meaningful. The door to the healing and joy of paradise has a cross-shaped key-hole. You have to accept the cross of death to receive the promise of resurrection. You have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday. And that, my friends, is the scandalous, challenging, humble, beautiful heart of the Christian faith. Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him.

Deny yourself….

How should we deny ourselves? Well, Peter found out God’s plan, took him aside and said, “No, that’s not a good plan, here’s how it’s going to happen instead.” Do we ever do that? Do we overrule God’s instructions, and law, and plan, and instead choose our own desire, our own law, and our own plan? That’s not denying ourselves, that’s denying Him, and setting ourselves up against Him. Denying ourselves is accepting God’s laws, communicated to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. It is saying “no” to the attachments, addictions, and actions that are sinful, or that we want in a sinful, disordered way. It is putting our plans for our busy day on hold, and taking time to pray. It is accepting the truth we don’t want to. It is doing the things we know are right but don’t want to. It is meeting our responsibilities, our debts, our obligations—as parents, as students, as employees, as spouses, as Catholics. It is the virtuous habits of humility, self-gift, generosity, and piety.

Deny yourself… Pick up your cross…

How do we pick up our cross? During Christ’s Passion, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. But in his ministry after Pentecost, then filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter accepted the importance of his role as a Christian leader, and was filled with the selfless love for God and for His people. Then he willingly accepted the cross. Picking up our cross is the many ways in which we accept not getting our way, and not doing what we want. To borrow a phrase from Fr. Thomas Richter, in his brilliant message on Trust in the Lord, picking up the cross is where ever, if we had a magic wand, we would wave it and change something about ourselves or our life. (NOTE: That doesn’t mean an abdication where we can rightfully act to improve the situation; it means an act of the will to accept where God’s will is different than ours.) We can take up our suffering, and invite Jesus into our lives through that union of the same suffering, and we–struggling with our weakness–are filled with the power of his divinity. Our suffering is our portal into union with God, if we pick up our cross and suffer with and for Him, as he did for us. Picking up our cross is also accepting our mission to be a confusing contradiction, a foolishness, to worldly wisdom, and to embrace the life of grace, and the suffering–persecution, mockery, rejection–that comes from living one’s faith in Jesus Christ.

Deny yourself… Pick up your cross… and Follow Him.

How do we follow Him? Look at our first reading, from St. James, who says: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith, of itself–if it does not have works, [what good is it? It] is deadDemonstrate your faith to me, without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.” The Scriptures repeatedly emphasize that however you are able to do so, in the context of your life, your faith must bear good fruit–in your choices, in your words, in your love toward God and toward others.

Image result for amazing loveThat’s the key: love at work in us. When people are in love, they go to ridiculous lengths to show it! When we give ourselves over to the inspirations of love, we will deny ourselves all kinds of things, and give generously of ourselves in all sorts of ways. We will endure and embrace all sorts of suffering for love. As crazy full of love as we can be as young people, we are called to be infinitely more so for God, and for everyone (that’s the love–the communion of saints–of heaven!) So, completely overfilled with love, we follow Christ. How? By following his example—as priest, prophet and king.

  • as priest, to embrace our royal/common priesthood to offer sacrifice and prayer for the praise and glory to God, and for the salvation of souls; being a living witness to the universal call to holiness;
  • as prophet, to speak the truth, in season and out of season (whether it’s a message that may be accepted, or a message that may be criticized); to live, share, defend, and suffer for the truth that sets us free;
  • as king, to lead through serving others; to be great by being small, to perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy:

works of mercy


A faith without these fruits of good works will not save us.
These good works done without faith will not save us.
These good works as the fruit of our life of faith and love for God through Jesus Christ: that is the faith that bears fruit and that saves.

Deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow Him.

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Homily: Jesus and Tradition

Catholic Tradition

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” Gustav Mahler

Tradition is essential for any family, community, or society to survive. Tradition literally means, “to hand on,” to hand on to the next generation the wisdom, culture, resources, and knowledge from the previous generation. This is of course extremely important for the survival of the group and its members: you have to know where to find food, where the dangers are, what works and what doesn’t, and then, what’s good, true, and beautiful that makes life meaningful and more enjoyable. It also means handing on traditions of great inspiring figures of the past, the stories that bind us together: of where we come from, and why we’re here, who we are, why things are the way they are, and where we believe we’re going. Tradition helps us to understand our role in the great drama of the story of the world, and what might be beyond it.

But each generation also has the task of discerning the value of particular traditions, if something should be added, changed or dropped. Dr. Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist, and author of Twelve Rules for Life, has a 15-part lecture series on the psychological wisdom of the stories in the Book of Genesis. Such things as man’s courageous venturing from the known to the unknown, living by the rules of the world, the importance of sacrifice, being prepared for the looming potential disaster, why the great enemy in tradition is a dangerous serpent, and the practical effects of the Fall from Eden. Peterson, who doesn’t publicly identify himself as a Christian (although he says he was brought up as one), strongly warns against dismissing the biblical stories as  simplistic superstition, but rather (whatever else they might also be) they are fundamental wisdom handed on through highly developed stories, which have the power to teach the most important truths of humanity.

So tradition is important, but not the most important thing. Tradition is a means to an end, and the most important thing, the end, is the overall success of human flourishing, individually and communally. Not just the biblical stories of Genesis, but also the biblical law in the other early books, were understood as the instruction book for human life, given by the author of life. Moses says to the people in our first reading, “Israel, hear the statutes and decrees which I am teaching you to observe, that you may live… In your observance of the commandments of the LORD, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you nor subtract from it. Observe them carefully, for thus will you give evidence of your wisdom and intelligence to the nations, who will hear of all these statutes and say, ‘This great nation is truly a wise and intelligent people.’”

Tradition is important, but not the most important thing. Tradition is a means to an end, and the most important thing, the end, is the overall success of human flourishing, individually and communally.

And so that sets the stage for our theme today: the role of Tradition in relation to the Law. As a little background to the Gospel Reading, the Pharisees were a popular subset (a sect) within Judaism whose intent was to promote the holiness of the people of Israel. They took the ritual holiness codes in the Law that applied to priests preparing to enter the Temple to offer worship, and then they applied those codes to everyone in everyday life. You can see the good in that—because you can see the hypocrisy of living one way on the Sabbath and then a life inconsistent with that the rest of the week, or the hypocrisy of those who appeared to be good holy men on the outside, but their interior life was disordered, abusive, and selfish. The intent of the Pharisees was to set up a protective barrier around the Law, so that even if you sinned against the traditions of the elders (the Pharisees), you won’t necessarily have broken the Law of God. The problem was that eventually the traditions of the elders became detached from (and more important than) the Law of God, and traditions developed which even contradicted the requirements of the Law, because the spiritual heart of the traditions of the elders was not the same as the spiritual heart of the Law of God. The result was the very pharisaic hypocrisy the traditions were supposed to prevent.

One difference between these two sets of laws concerned ritual washing of hands. The law only required ritual hand washing of the priests going into the temple. But the tradition of the elders required ritual hand washing of everyone in all sorts of circumstances. The Pharisees asked Jesus, ‘Why do your disciples not follow the tradition of the elders but instead eat with unclean hands?’ Jesus responded, ‘Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.’ You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.’”

Now, the lectionary skips a section here. Jesus gives an example of what he’s talking about, and he refers to the tradition of “quorban.” Quorban meant a thing that was dedicated to God. The Pharisees were using this tradition to claim their possessions and property were reserved for God, and therefore could not be used as resources to support and take care of their mother and father in their old age. So the Pharisees had added this human law, quorban, to subtract from the law of God, the fourth commandment to honor father and mother.

Jesus ends that section by saying, “You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.” And then our gospel reading picks up with the next verse, “He summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” And then in the end of the reading, Jesus gives a rather impressive list of the things that defile.

[Not part of the Sunday Homily: Our English translation renders these:  evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. Courtesy of Dr. Brant Pitre (on whose reflection much of this homily is based) and Dr. John Bergsma, I would like to give a brief unpacking of these things that defile the heart, based on the Greek words as given in the Scriptures:

  • hoi dialogismoi hoi kakoi  “evil thoughts” or “evil deliberations.” It doesn’t mean an involuntary thought. It means evil plans or evil designs. This is something that is voluntary; hatching an evil plan.
  • porneiai, “sexual immoralities,” any intentional use of one’s sexual nature (in thought, word, or deed) apart from the nuptial act in the context of the nuptial, matrimonial covenant. Obviously there’s a lot more that can be said here, perhaps we’ll talk about that later.
  • klopai, “thefts,” from the same root from which we derive “kleptomaniac.” 
  • phonoi, “murders,” intentional killing of an innocent person. 
  • moicheiai, “adulteries,” specifically sex (or more generally, a tempting relationship) between two people not married to each other, when one or both of them is married to someone else. This is more grave than fornication, because it is fornication that also sins against the promise of faithfulness in the marriage promises.
  • pleonexiai, “greeds, avarices,” ‘a strong desire to acquire more and more material possessions or to possess more things than other people have, all irrespective of need’ This is not a condemnation of wealth, but the disordered lust for wealth that leads one into other sins
  • poneriai, “evils,” a general term, related to the term for the Devil, ‘o poneros, the “Evil One.”
  • dolos, “lying, deception, trickery, falsehood.”
  • aselgeia, “perversion, godlessness,” living without any prayer, worship, or thought of God, living in a (depraved) manner oblivious or rebellious to God’s goodness
  • ophthalmos poneros, “evil eye,” in this context, looking upon the goods (personal qualities or possessions) of another with evil intent (related to greed, also related to uncharitable thoughts toward those who have what one is envious of)
  • blasphemia, “blasphemy,” a verbal attack on a person’s reputation, name, or dignity, whether a human or divine person. (rash judgment, detraction, calumny, slander)
  • huperephania, “pride, arrogance, haughtiness,” self-aggrandizement, self-centeredness, narcissism
  • aphrosune, “foolishness,” thoughtlessness, imprudence, rashness, recklessness]

What makes a person clean and righteous is not a matter of exterior washing of hands, but a matter of interior cleansing of the heart.

We sometimes fall into the popular error that Jesus came and abolished all those impossible-to-keep requirements of righteousness, and streamlined it all into the simple, Love God and Love One Another, and it’s so much easier now. But over and over we see that Jesus didn’t make it easier—he gives us the difficult, narrow way. It’s a lot easier to wash your hands than to cleanse your heart. It’s a lot easier to show justice to your neighbor than love for your enemy. It’s a lot easier to shout for the crucifixion of others than to deny yourself and embrace your own cross.

Ok, so last thing. Sacred Tradition. This is often a sticking point between Protestants vs. Catholics, between “sola scriptura” vs. “Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.” Clearly Jesus does not condemn human tradition per se, or even Jewish tradition. More than once Christians are exhorted to follow oral tradition, and to obey those who teach from the Chair of Moses. Jesus condemns human tradition that gets in the way of following the law of God. Catholic Tradition doesn’t presume to create an additional protective boundary around the law of God, the way that the tradition of the Pharisees did, more demanding than the law itself. Catholic Tradition is the practical living out of the New Covenant Law of God, which includes the Sacred Scriptures. The Tradition develops as the Church encounters new questions and challenges to faithfully living the Christian life, both as the communion of the Body of Christ, and as individual members of it. The Discipline of the Sacraments, the difficult moral questions, the rubrics of liturgy and worship, the spiritual writings of the saints, the dialogue with new cultures and ideas, and the development of philosophy, science, and technology.

Sacred Tradition is the culture that feeds the Catholic imagination, inspires thousands of years of art, music, sculpture, architecture, schools, hospitals, and saints; Catholic tradition and culture allows us to stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants, that our lives might be filled with the faith, hope, and love for what awaits those who love God and walk in his ways.

[Not part of the Sunday Homily: A particularly difficult question someone might be wrestling with is, if Sacred Tradition is administered by the clergy, and right now I’m having a hard time trusting the clergy, how do I trust Sacred Tradition?

A reasonable question. Sacred Tradition is not primarily the work of the clergy, it is also the work of the Church, the saints, the mystics, and the sense of the faithful. But it is primarily the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus gave us the Advocate, and the promise that the Church would withstand even the gates of hell, until the end of the world. The clergy have always been sinful, even Peter, Judas, Andrew, John, and the rest of the Twelve, and every ordained man ever since. It was Peter who ruled that gentiles did not need to be circumcised, and that the prohibition on unclean foods was no longer applicable. Based on what? Based on the grace of his episcopal office, the grace of the Holy Spirit, working through sinful men. “‘Twas always thus, and always thus t’will be.” Even the most egregiously corrupt popes did not change Church teaching to accommodate their sinfulness. One (I forget who) is noted for saying, “I know the good I should do, I just can’t do it.”

While sinful clergy might be able to enact unworthy legislation in the fiefdom of their own jurisdiction, there’s a huge difference between that and the deposit of faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It’s not that we hold church documents (encyclicals and such) to be divinely inspired. But we hold that whatever Christ meant when he gave us His promise of divine protection and guidance for His Church, it means that we can have confidence and faith in the Church because we have confidence and faith her Lord and Protector. We might struggle with aspects of the teaching of the Church, but that’s different than popes and bishops putting forward their own sinfulness as the basis for changes in Church teaching. The teaching of the Church is trustworthy not because we trust in the clergy, but because we trust in Jesus Christ.

The Sacraments convey grace, no matter how sinful the minister, because Christ is the primary agent of grace in all the celebrations of the Church’s sacraments. As St. Augustine said in his commentary on the Gospel of John: “When Peter baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes… When Judas baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes.” The Church could hardly have survived if it depended on sinless members, or sinless clergy. The perennial challenge of the sinfulness of the clergy is in a way a testament to the life of the Church not relying on its clergy for its life. It gets its life from Christ, the true head and fount of the Church.

Lastly, as an aside. The Catholic Church differentiates between Sacred Tradition, and human traditions. That the clergy is male is repeatedly affirmed as part of Sacred Tradition. That the clergy is celibate is a tradition–it is not part of divine revelation. That Christ was born of the perpetually-virgin Mary, who was immaculately conceived, and at the end of her earthly life was assumed body and soul into heaven, is part of Sacred Tradition. That Jesus was born December 25 is a tradition. Not everything that Catholics do is Sacred Tradition: fish on fridays, Mardi Gras, house blessings, Catholic schools, and bingo, these are wonderful Catholic traditions, but they are ancillary, not essential. They do not belong to Sacred Tradition (well, bingo, maybe…). The “development of doctrine,” is the application of the principles found in Sacred Scripture, informed by the wisdom of Sacred Tradition, which has accompanied the Sacred Scriptures from the beginning. There is a harmony among the writings of the Early Christian Church that does not rely on the Scriptures, but rather on the common Christian culture (spanning many human cultures) handed down along with the Scriptures. This Tradition was, and continues to be, essential for the sensus fidelium, the sense of the faithful, in what is authentically Christian. It is, in a sense, the Spirit of the Church. And since the Church is the Body of Christ, and His Spirit is the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit. our trust in the Church is our trust in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.]